The record-breaking success of 1989’s Batman green-lit a wave big-budget retro-adventure films, including the outlandish, neon ensemble piece Dick Tracy; the brash, moody grotesquerie of The Shadow; and the feather-light, straight-faced camp of latecoming entry The Phantom. Nestled amongst them is 1991’s The Rocketeer; though it was considered a modest disappointment upon release (Disney thought they had another Indiana Jones franchise on their hands), it has aged remarkably well, proving far more timeless its peers, and finding a devoted cult following on home video.
The film was a career-making break for Charlottesville’s own Billy Campbell (a Western Albemarle grad), pitch-perfect in the starring role as an earnest, all-American daredevil pilot in 1930’s California who accidentally lucks into one of the most primal of 20th-century pop-science fantasies: a rocket pack. Simultaneously pursued by the rockets designers, the FBI, and the Mob, he dons an impeccably designed art-deco helmet and takes flight in order to rescue his sweetheart (a never-lovelier Jennifer Connelly) while thwarting a secret Nazi invasion of the US.
The supporting roles are filled by a solid roster of reliable character actors, from Alan Arkin and John Polito to Paul Sorvino and young Terry O’Quinn (as Howard Hughes!); the under-appreciated Timothy Dalton has never been finer than his wickedly fun turn here as a sneering, swashbuckling villain, channeling the darker side of the Erroll Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. persona.
Closely adapted from an obscure 1980’s comic book by would-be pin-up artist Dave Stevens (Connelly’s character was supposed to be Betty Page in the original), the film is expertly helmed by Joe Johnston, a Spielberg and Lucas protégée who got his start as a model-builder for the original Star Wars. One of the few contemporary filmmakers to revisit retro and genre material with sincerity and optimism rather than cynicism and sarcasm, Johnston has had a remarkably consistent career, from Honey, I Shrink the Kids and October Sky to the recent Wolfman and Captain America remakes.
Featuring zeppelins, car chases, nightclubs, gangsters, swordfights, daredevil acrobatics, numerous fun jabs at old Hollywood, and countless scenes set in and around classic LA landmarks, The Rocketeer is a timeless, charming, and well-crafted bit of all-American entertainment. The Packard Theater at the Library of Congress in Culpeper will screen a fully restored 35mm print of The Rocketeer on Saturday, June 22nd at 2:00pm. The film is rated PG, and admission is free, although the Theater does encourage advance reservations.